It’s the Saturday afternoon at the Nürburgring 24 Hour.
The cars have qualified, fans are pouring in by the thousands and the paddock is alive with the buzz of over 150 teams making their way onto the grid. Everyone is anxiously waiting for one thing: the green flag.
Although the annual endurance race at the Nürburgring Nordschleife tends to live in the shadow of its prestigious older brother 700km and one country over, the event certainly doesn’t feel any less special. In fact, despite the race taking place one weekend after Le Mans and the conclusion of the FIA World Endurance Championship, it’s clear that the Nürburgring 24 Hour is still the single-most important race in Germany for the manufacturers.
With the weight of months-worth of tweaking and preparation looming over the teams, a harsh reality set in on the grid: all that matters here is a podium, anything less is worth nothing at all.
This fact had to be in the back of the drivers’ minds — take Adam Christodoulou, pictured above, for example. Behind that smille is a man who stood on the top spot back in 2016 and narrowly missed doing the same last year. Both times he was piloting the Bilstein-equipped Team Black Falcon AMG GT3 race car, the same machine being used this time around.
Everyone knows that Adam and Black Falcon can win. If their history in years past at the track wasn’t enough, qualifying first just 24 hours earlier proved this yet again. But although this photo shows a smiling, light-hearted atmosphere, it doesn’t show the sheer intensity running through the air.
These guys are already subject to a ridiculous amount of pressure on the 25km track, which encompasses the Nordschleife and the Grand Prix circuit combined, but this all-or-nothing nature of the event makes things that much more difficult. One mistake over the next 24 hours would mean everyone’s efforts were in vain.
So much needs to go just right, from the manufacturers to the individual teams, the sponsors, the mechanics, the drivers, and, of course, lady luck.
It’s almost incomprehensible that anyone finishes the race at all, but year after year the Nürburgring 24 Hour continues to be a day-long display of god-like human ability.
Not only is there no margin for error on the track itself, but the competition between the different teams leaves drivers with essentially no leeway. Maro Engel took pole position in the Black Falcon Mercedes AMG with a time of 8:10.910 and the second qualifier was just 0.137 seconds behind in the Mann Filter Mercedes.
It seems unimaginable that a mere tenth of a second could separate the top two cars over a 25.947km lap, but this is the reality of the competition at the Nürburgring 24 Hour, and it’s nothing short of absolutely epic.
While the podium is all that really matters to the big manufacturers, top teams, and sponsors, the grid is full of similarly tight battles from top to bottom. Meanwhile, other teams are just hoping to complete the strenuous race at all, which certainly is an accomplishment in itself.
With Porsche winning last year, Audi taking the victory in 2017, and Mercedes sealing the deal in 2016 (and BMW not winning since 2010) this year’s race was anyone’s game.
Seeing as how team Black Falcon found themselves at the front of the grid, as well as fielding seven other entries in a variety of classes (SP 9, 8T, 7, 10, and V 6 to be exact) for this year’s event it was only fair to give their garage a good poke around before the race.
The sheer level of engineering that goes into making these races so tight never ceases to amaze me and this is precisely the topic I’m going to follow up on with the Bilstein support team that showed up to the race.
And yes, Toyota’s president Akio Toyoda did indeed race the Gazoo Supra at the Nürburgring 24 Hour, and I’ll have a story detailing their entry and why it matters also posted shortly.
That’s all for later, though, as a final walk of the pits and the grid before the start of the race was in order as the time ticked down.
At the front of the pack before the safety lap commenced, the Volkswagen ID.R was back at the ‘Ring with Romain Dumas behind the wheel for a bit of fun in their silent car to follow up their EV record.
Luckily the batteries managed to last a full lap, and with the race start imminent I headed over the barrier to look for a good vantage point.Race Start
Every great race has a great start, and I made my way to the outside of Turn 1 on the Grand Prix circuit to experience this firsthand. The cars made their way around with the safety car in the lead, meaning it would be roughly 10 minutes until they came back through for the flying start.
With the crowd suddenly on their feet, it could only mean one thing, and Black Falcon driver Manuel Metzger lead the pack into T1 as the green flag waved behind him.
What unfolded next was absolute mayhem, and it seemed some sort of miracle that there wasn’t any carnage. Although it looks like these drivers are pushing ten tenths from the outside, they’re actually running a bit of a conservative race at this point — no sense cooking your tires or finding yourself out of a 24-hour race in the first lap.
Not to mention, any mishaps after T13 – the entry to the Green Hell section – means at least 9 minutes back to the pits.
With a lap this long, strategy plays a huge factor in the race; there are no quick fixes for anything, and if you find yourself a lap or two down you can essentially count yourself out thanks to the razor-slim margins between competitors.
No mistakes, then.
By the start of the third lap Metzger had earned himself a few seconds gap to the Mercedes AMG in second, the racing mellowed out a bit, and I headed over to Turn 13 of the Grand Prix Circuit where the cars enter the Nordschleife.
The layout of the two circuits is pretty fantastic, as neither is compromised by the other, and all of the important features of both are included. Obviously it would be difficult to exclude a significant portion of the 20-plus kilometer Nordschleife, but with the cars entering at Nordkehre and exiting onto the main straight you only one corner of the long track is skipped, and a dozen added with the (relatively) new GP circuit.
While at the transition, I made it a point to walk down as far as I could towards Hohenrain as the competitors make their way off the back straight and fastest point on the track.
With the Black Falcon entries still running clean races with the #2 car at the top of the leaderboard, things were looking good as the first stint came to an end. After the pit stops Mero Engel took the #2 car back into the lead again and the waiting game was on.
As the racing settled down for the long haul, I had what I thought was a bit of time to kill and headed back towards the media center to recoup before heading out to the Nordschleife for sunset. It was as I sat here, during third hour, that the N24 claimed its first major casualty. The number 55 Ferrari 488 GT3 was engulfed in flames as the car continued around the course in dramatic fashion, before the driver Alexander Prinz exited and aided the marshals in extinguishing the inferno at the rear.
The team is still unsure of the cause of the fire, but what was immediately and painfully clear was that the 488 would not be completing the race. I wasn’t able to catch up with any of the team after the fact but Prinz’s body language was plenty to convey the utter disappointment he was feeling.
Yeah, yeah, I’ve already heard all the jokes about Ferraris catching on fire. The point is, there’s just so much room for things to go wrong in a race like this. With so many people’s hopes riding on the results, it has to just be heartbreaking when it goes badly. Little did I know, this was just the beginning…Into The Night
As the sun dipped down in the sky I made my way towards the carousel, wishing the Black Falcon boys the best of luck. Call me a bandwagoner, but it didn’t take me long to develop a liking for the front-running team — hang out in pretty much any garage and the guys there will grow on you. But regardless, I had my fingers crossed that their good luck and blistering pace would continue.
Through the fifth hour the number 2 car was still in the lead with the number 3 car not too far behind, running between 5th and 7th depending on who had pitted. As a casual observer it’s awfully hard to follow the ins and outs of each team’s strategy, and without watching along on TV it’s practically impossible to keep track of who is where.
Unfortunately for me my phone was essentially a brick for the five days I was in Germany, but the upside was that I was able to focus entirely on what was happening directly in front of me as the Mann Filter Mercedes (who had qualified second) did its best to creep up on the Black Falcon front-runner.
When it comes to the carousel, photos and videos just don’t convey the insanity of this corner. Cars lift their inside front diving in, bounce around the 210-degree turn, then launch flat-out on two wheels to continue through a fast right-hander into the sharp left of Hohe Acht.
Drivers hammer around the outside to pass back-markers, or else ride their rear bumper before mashing the loud pedal hard into the floor to catapult past on the exit. As it turned to night, the racing at the carousel (and elsewhere on the 25km circuit) just became more intense.
The focus of these drivers is unimaginable to me, lap after lap, nailing all 150-plus curves and bends of the Nordschleife-GP combo track.
A few curves farther on is Pflanzgarten, where the quickest cars momentarily defy physics before heading full-tilt into an uphill right-hander. From here the there are a few more S-turns before I caught up with the cars again at the Kleines Karussell as complete darkness began to engulf the track.
Again, I’ll never not be amazed by the drivers who have mastered this course down to the last detail. The fact that these guys can position their cars within millimeters of where they need to be time and time again in the dark of night is absolutely incredible.
Just thinking back on it is enough to raise the hair on the back of my neck; the Nürburgring was everything I had hoped and more.The Pits
Although the drivers do seem to have superhuman abilities, it’s during the night that the rate of mistakes and mishaps rises. I wanted to capture the pits when I felt there would be the most drama so, with this in mind, once the sun dipped farther past the horizon I went in for a round of pit stops.
Honestly, I could have watched the action on the Nordschleife along with the amped up crowds (which weren’t letting up a bit) all night, but eventually I was completely unable to actually take photos on the pitch-black circuit.
It was once I made it back to the Black Falcon garage that I learned that a run-in with a back-marker around hour six resulted in a broken steering rack in the number 2 car — the Mercedes AMG which had been handily leading the race up until this point. While it could be fixed, the team would be so far back by this point that they were better off just retiring the car.
The lack of a gap between competitors is what makes this race so insane to me. In 2018, the top five teams were within one lap of each other, with just five laps separating the top sixteen.
With the race finally approaching the halfway point around 3:30am, what would happen here in 2019? Only time would tell, and the drama was far from over.
Some pit stops were smooth, others were frantic as teams dealt with mechanical failure, bad luck, or mistakes from drivers. Meanwhile, the drivers do their best to keep their cool as the seconds tick by while their teammates scramble to repair and ready their cars.
These are intense moments, as everyone involved is fully aware a misstep here could be just as catastrophic as one out on track in terms of the race result.
Many lead changes really happen in the pits, and often the outcome of the race is determined by pit strategy and how quickly teams can recover from adversary in their garage — the whole race hangs in the balance during these seconds with the entire team working together.
Finally, as the sun started to barely creep back up in the sky, I just couldn’t take it anymore. My body seemed uninterested in responding to my brain and — as much as I would have loved to shoot sunrise — I decided to catch a few hours of sleep before the race finish.
Teams and drivers continued on through the night as I rested up, hoping to muster enough energy to shoot a few more corners and the podium in about eight hours time.The Dust Settles
As I made it back to the track, the drivers showed no signs of slowing down whatsoever.
After visiting Pflanzgarten from inside the track the night before, I wanted to catch the cars head-on as they flew through the air. This portion of the track really is a spectacle like no other, and yet just one of several dozen features that could potentially destroy a car.
By this point in the day quite a few cars had in fact been destroyed, with several others limping along to the pits and, hopefully, the finish.
Moving on, I made one last stop on the Nordschleife at Adenau Forest before heading towards the main grandstands for the end of the race.
With teams anxiously awaiting the 24-hour mark the garages were still very much alive, and back in the pits I learned of more carnage, this time in the form of the fan-favorite Opel Manta.
While most of the top teams would pack up and head home after an incident like the Manta experienced — which also took out a Black Falcon GT4 car — this philosophy didn’t sit right with the ‘Foxtail’ team.
Rather than throwing in the towel, the guys got the car back together to run the final lap of the race, a feat which earned the team a massive roar of approval from both the crowd and other teams.
As the clock ticked down to end the 24 hour race, the pit wall was flooded with drivers, mechanics, and engineers alike. Everyone clamored to get a view of the finish and to cheer their drivers on as they crossed the line.
It was absolute mayhem, but the number 4 Audi R8 LMS of Team Phoenix ultimately crossed the line first, having completed 157 laps. This victory came only thanks to a late 5m32s penalty to the #911 Manthey Porsche due to clocking 172km/h in a 120km/h speed zone as well as not responding to double yellow flags.
I’m sure I’m beating a dead horse at this point, but it’s simply mind-boggling to think of how much has to go just right in order to finish this race, let alone earn a top-three finish.
While the pole-sitting Black Falcon car was bumped from contention fairly early on, the podium was still rounded off with another of their Bilstein-equipped Mercedes AMG entries. Ultimately the number 3 car piloted by Maxi Buhk, Hubert Haupt, Thomas Jager, and Luca Stolz fought back from 8th place on the grid to finish third after a grueling 24 hours.
It just goes to show how hard-earned each finish is at the Nürburgring 24. And if you want to podium, it requires something otherworldly to accomplish. Every driver, pit crew member, mechanic, race engineer, manufacturer, and sponsor must get every last detail spot-on.
Even if you do get it all completely right from start to finish, everyone’s playing the game of do-or-die random chance. Emotions at an all-time high on the podium, the drivers struggled for one last moment before letting the champagne spray.
Through and through the Nürburgring 24 Hour is an insane experience, and I’m already wondering who might hoist the glass trophies at the Green Hell in 2020.
If this year’s race is any indication, it really could be anyone…